Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Trayvon Martin conversation that we need to have

The Huffington Post recently ran an article on “15 shocking 'stand your ground' cases,” in which “stand your ground” was considered a sufficient justification for everything from settling garbage bag ordinance violations with a gun to chasing off utility men after you forget to pay your bill. There has been a lot of talk about stand your ground, obviously, due to the Zimmerman case. While George Zimmerman initially justified shooting unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin under the “stand your ground” provision, saying that he feared for his life during their altercation, his legal team relied simply on arguing that this was an act of self defense. For many conservatives, this means any discussion of “stand your ground” is moot. This is not true. Zimmerman's legal defense was the broader argument of self defense, but the jury instructions, when determining verdict, included “stand your ground” as a consideration. Now, much of that discussion centers on the seeming incongruity between how “stand your ground” provisions were applied in this case and others, say Marissa Alexander's (the domestic violence victim who was denied a “stand your ground” defense, and was instead sentenced to twenty years for firing a warning shot). My conservative friends have been eager to point to articles denying any similarity, arguing, among other things, that Alexander could have simply fled instead of shooting. While this ignores the point of stand your ground laws, and the precedent of those who have been acquitted (like the homeowner who killed his wife's lover, with the jury finding he “had "no duty to retreat" when facing perceived danger within his own home”), and while it also ignores the elephant in the room (race: white people, like the home owner, benefit at significantly higher rates than black people when attempting to use a “stand your ground” defense), all of it misses the larger question. At what point do we acknowledge that the concept of “defense,” properly enshrined in law, is not a license to play judge, jury and executioner over minor crimes; that having a right to defend your well being or your property also includes a reasonable expectation that you have not given someone else sufficient cause to feel themselves in danger, thus bringing about the incident -- in other words, your behavior has not provoked a defense that now endangers you; and that when non-lethal solutions which do not involve serious harm to yourself exist, these are to be preferred? Be it “stand your ground” laws as so many states have them, or Texas' nighttime theft law that allows a man to shoot an escort in the neck, first paralyzing and eventually killing her, for refusing to have sex with him after taking payment, laws around this country elevate personal disputes and minor crimes in which there is no real threat of danger to life and death situations. Florida's stand your ground law, which declares that a person has no duty to retreat, also allows for the other person to have initiated the conflict. In other words, you can start a fight, feel like, perhaps, you are in danger, and shoot; and that is legal. The victim, the dead person, is now the criminal; you have but to allege that you feared for your life and maintain a more or less consistent story, and voila! Freedom. 

Don't believe me? How about a real life example. Suppose, for instance, that you're an adult, a large, capable-ish guy. You see someone you don't recognize, and feel that there is something suspicious about him. You follow him, first in your car. You call the police, and they advise you that they are on their way; they tell you to give up the chase. But you decide, instead, to pursue. You are a member of the neighborhood watch, and this directly conflicts with neighborhood watch guidelines; but you suspect this person might be a thief, so you ignore those guidelines. You're on foot now. The teenager you're pursuing, first by vehicle and now on foot, confides to his friend on the phone that you creep him out, that he is frightened of you. Somehow, you meet and an altercation ensues. You never, at any time during this incident, identify yourself as a neighborhood watch official – again, a departure from the rules. This act alone might have ended any problems. But you don't do that. After the incident, you claim that the teenager attacked you first when he saw you reach for a phone – which he took to be a gun. (Of course, when this is all said and done, he's dead; so it's really just your word for it all). Again, you do not identify yourself as someone with legitimate intentions. You fight the teenager, who thinks you are an armed ne'er-do-well reaching for your weapon. According to you, he puts up a good fight; you are afraid for your life. You shoot, and kill. Sound familiar? 

Now, despite the fact that George Zimmerman gave Trayvon Martin every reason to worry and none to be at ease (never once doing the oh-so-obvious: “I'm neighborhood watch, I keep any eye on this area; everything ok?”); despite the fact that he showed incredibly bad judgment at every step of the way: since the only testimony is his (he killed the other witness), and he claims that he felt endangered, according to Florida law, he is guiltless. Is it “self defense” to kill someone, when all you have to do to deescalate the situation is say, “I'm with the neighborhood watch”? Is it self defense to shoot your neighbor over an argument about trash? Is it self defense to kill someone over an argument about dogs, as that person is leaving? Is it self defense to shoot someone retreating from a fight in the back of the head? Is it a legitimate use of force to shoot someone for harassment – as in the case in Texas, where a man returned to his house, retrieved a shotgun, and, instead of initiating a non-lethal solution in a case where lethality was clearly not called for, was going to shoot his ex-girlfriend (instead, mistakenly shooing his current [at that time, at least] girlfriend) – and police were initially unsure if that constituted a crime? Ultimately, is it “self defense” when the power of defusing the situation at no risk to yourself (be it, identifying yourself; calling the police; etc.) is in your hands – or the situation has already been defused – to pull a trigger instead? It's for exactly this reason that police must identify themselves when they enter a home – so that someone doesn't assume that they're home invaders. We'd be mortified if police stormed into a house, didn't identify themselves, and shot and killed anyone who resisted. We expect our police officers to go to sometimes extraordinary lengths to defuse situations. And yet we've allowed the concept of “self defense” to replace any such need for reasonable attempts, when possible, to defuse situations in civilian lives. Simply claiming that you felt imperiled, even if you initiated the entire incident; even if you did nothing, when something could reasonably, without risking harm to yourself, be done, to resolve it in a non-lethal manner, has become a justifiable cause to kill. 

 Now, to be clear, I am no disparaging the idea of self defense, or, as Todd Akin might put it, “legitimate self defense”. I just don't think that trailing minors, ignoring police warnings and neighborhood watch guidelines, failing to identify yourself as a legitimate authority in the area, and then shooting (to kill) after an altercation breaks out is legitimate self defense. I think avoiding the entire situation in the first place, or communicating with the person you're trailing when you see he's on edge/afraid of you, should have been George Zimmerman's choices of action. The fact that he bypassed them and went straight to shooting indicates a lack of respect for life that should not be given a pat on the back by our judicial system. I don't think resorting to lethality is legitimate when non-lethal options are open. I don't think you should just shoot your ex-girlfriend for showing up on your property when she poses no actual threat to you, and you can call the police, file a restraining order, etc. In short, I don't think we should conflate incidences where there was no reasonable choice but lethal retaliation with cases where there were other choices that should, at least, have been attempted. In Zimmerman's case, for instance, it wouldn't have endangered him in any way to say, “I'm part of the neighborhood watch program”. He wouldn't have risked bodily injury, wouldn't have risked someone getting the jump on him, wouldn't have in any way put himself in harm's way; it's not an unreasonable expectation (in point of fact, the police were quite surprised that he did nothing of the sort). But he might have avoided the entire confrontation if he had done it. Trayvon Martin might still be alive had he done it. Lethality was not Zimmerman's only or best choice; it was not even the reasonable choice. And yet our system of law smiles on that choice, deeming it a legitimate use of force, a reasonable application of lethality in the aim of self defense. 

 Our society has evolved into a culture respecting rules and law, where we have police officers, courts, judges and juries to handle our disputes whenever possible. We have (had?) moved away from violent lethality as a general response to disputes for a reason. The “wild, wild west” days of gun slinging and shoot outs are fun in the movies, but hell for the people who live them. That doesn't mean that, if push really comes to shove, you should die or suffer grievous bodily injury. But it does mean that you can't just decide to kill someone because you're pissed off or it's simpler than walking away. There's a reason the “he who draws first walks free” mindset leads to more dead people (as it has, wherever “stand your ground” has been implemented). It gives people an easy, violent solution for disputes that do not merit it; and, too often, they take it. It imperils everyone to the benefit of the minority who would pull the trigger rather than seek a more reasonable solution. It is a license to kill, to override thousands of years of societal and legal progress, to elevate primitive, violent urges above calm, rational ones. It is not necessary to ensure that men and women are able to defend themselves. On the contrary, it makes a mockery of the true need for self defense, opening the possibility that every minor disagreement could end in a potential armed showdown – where the first to draw, or the only one armed, walks away a free man or woman. 

 If the senseless tragedy of Trayvon Martin's death sparks just one national conversation, I hope it's this one. It is important to everyone who ever has any interaction with other human beings (of their own volition or not) that could ever, possibly, give rise to someone killing and alleging that person provoked his or her own death. It's important to African Americans, whose deaths are 354% more likely to be ruled justifiable when a white person shoots them and claims that they had no choice – even if the dead person is an unarmed teenager; even if, before killing them, the shooter trails them, first in a vehicle, then in a car, causing them to fear for their own safety; if that person violates the recommendation of a police dispatcher to cease following; ignores neighborhood watch guidelines that say to never, ever do that; fails to at any time identify himself as someone with a legitimate interest in the person's actions; even if that person doesn't use “stand your ground” as their defense, because it's applied anyway. It's an issue for anyone who is bothered by those statistics. It's still an issue if you're not bothered. Ultimately, it's an issue for anyone who feels that it's not okay to gun people down when there are better, equally safe alternatives. It's an issue for everyone who thinks taking someone's life should be the last, not first, resort. The right to protect yourself when your life or well-being is endangered should not be lessened or diminished; but the “right” to shoot when there are other, better options available needs to go, before more people die needlessly. (And, as ever, it's curious to me that the folks who always talk about “protecting life” are the ones so eager to stop this conversation from happening. But, hey, that's another topic).

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